Israelis protest to save ‘democracy,’ but what democracy is there in Israel?
Israelis wave flags during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 13, 2023. | Ohad Zwigenberg / AP

Israel has been rocked in the last several weeks by massive protests against the new coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. Protesters in the hundreds of thousands, carrying Israeli flags, have blocked roads and created havoc in many Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They even called for a general strike to paralyze the entire country, warning of a slide toward dictatorship. They are seeking to “save democracy” and revert to those values that define Israel as “Jewish and democratic.”

As I listen to the nonstop commentaries and debates on Israeli television and radio, in Hebrew, I feel the need to interpret these events for our constituency in the United States, who may not be fully aware of all the details of the Israeli scene.

The Israeli system purports to be a parliamentary democracy whereby the government is composed of the parliamentary majority, essentially a consolidation of the executive and legislative branches. This is unlike the United States, where the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) are clearly separate and form a system of checks and balances, intended to prevent any of the three branches from tyrannical rule.

In addition, the large number of parties in Israel mandates that the government be composed of coalitions, a process that enables even small parties like religious and right-wing parties, to further consolidate their power over the executive branch and essentially control the actions of the government.

Furthermore, in the absence of a written constitution, the role of the judiciary is enhanced as it becomes the only brake or check on the total power of the government. The current crisis is compounded by the fact that at least two of the major coalition leaders have run afoul of the law, and they are in the process of being sentenced, sent to jail, or denied the right to hold public office. As such, they are personally invested in the need to control the judiciary, reduce its power to overturn government decisions and enhance the power of the Knesset in order to appoint judges who would rule in their favor on their own specific cases.

During the recent elections, radically fascist as well as extremist religious parties gained a large number of seats, becoming essential partners for Netanyahu to form his government (with a coalition of 64 members in the 120-member Knesset). In a recent commentary, I argued that this slide into extremism was “predictable, inevitable, and irreversible.”

The inclusion of openly racist, fascist, and homophobic elements in the government was perhaps unavoidable. The shock to the “leftists” in the Israeli establishment resulted from an open attack by the new government against the judiciary and its demand for “reforms” that would effectively reduce the power of the judiciary to act as the only realistic brake or balance within the Israeli system.

What gave this fear of “judicial reform” its edge is that one of the leaders of the new coalition, Itamar Ben Gvir, was himself convicted of incitement and terrorism and is viewed as a dangerous, incendiary presence by the police. Now, he has been appointed as Minister of Police and is in charge of dealing with Palestinians, whom he recently threatened openly with “a Second Nakba.” He raised further fears when he demanded that Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem be placed under curfew and their inhabitants harassed as part of a “Second Protective Edge” operation.

One may rightly ask: What does this wave of protests do to advance the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

Unfortunately, most of the protesters have pointedly refused to address this issue. They neither invited nor welcomed Palestinian citizens of Israel to join in the protests. They discouraged the raising of any Palestinian flags and refused to make the Occupation an issue in their protest against government policies.

In other words, they projected a message that this fight is over the nature of the Jewishness of the State of Israel. They are more interested in maintaining the type of violent status quo we have seen thus far rather than in recognizing that the same forces that have led to fascism and extremism against Palestinians were now turning against them as well.

To fight for democracy, they must realize that Palestinians have not experienced democracy in Israel and that the High Court, which they hope will preserve their rights against religious extremists, bigots, and homophobes, has never been a champion of Arab freedom.

Despite this, I personally feel that the current wave of unrest provides a genuine opportunity to challenge Israelis and their supporters to pursue authentic equality and justice for the Palestinians and to realize that none of us can be free until all of us are free.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Jonathan Kuttab
Jonathan Kuttab

Human rights activist, attorney Jonathan Kuttab is executive director of Friends of Sabeel North America: A Christian Voice for Palestine.